RAHUL BHEKE ISN'T ONE for taking on a lot of pressure.
The quintessential Mumbaikar made himself at home wherever he went after his stints with hometown clubs Air India & Mumbai FC, be it Kerala Blasters, Pune City or East Bengal. Even at the Kolkata Derby, a game which is known to be intimidating for first-timers, Bheke kept a cool head throughout and even used it to score a goal off a corner in what went down as one of the most dominant Kolkata Derby victories ever for East Bengal.
Now, he's at Bengaluru FC; stepping into his fourth season with the club. He's also made his mark at the Indian national team, and days before his 30th birthday sounded as relaxed as ever in a season unlike any other,
"I'm really happy that I'm part of BFC. I have to keep learning and do my best in the coming days... I'll give the best for my team and hopefully we'll win the title again."
The defender has made over 70 appearances for the Blues but the team has kept him on his toes. After starting regularly throughout last season, the first couple of matches of ISL 2020-21 saw him come off the bench. Asked whether there was increased competition for positions in the squad at BFC, he said,
"At present we have a very much balanced side. There are two to three players at every position. So it's a really big competition for everyone. We'll be doing our best to be in the first eleven. It's really good for everyone and this is the way we can get our level up... maybe I'll be starting tomorrow's game [Against Chennaiyin FC]. So I hope tomorrow onwards we get back to our winning ways."
He even seemed to have a pretty good idea why he missed out on starting those first couple of games,
"If you ask me, personally for me, I'm not at my peak. Because I was out for a few weeks due to injury. So right now I'm not at my peak fitness... hopefully within a week or two after playing few more games I'll be back to my full fitness. But comparing to my other teammates, they're way better, fitter than me. They've done a pretty good job during the pre-season."
Although Rahul faced a real challenge staying in shape during the long months of lockdowns and inactivity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he wasn't ready to use that as an excuse,
"I think the challenge is same for every one since everyone has faced the same situation. The longest time was during the off season when we didn't know what would be the future and when we'd be playing our matches. At that time I was at home and I was enjoying the time with my family. When we came to know about the upcoming season I started doing my training at home. It wasn't possible for me to go on fields but I started doing it on roads near my apartment... we used to do weight training at an apartment where we could play badminton and all. It was good, something different. The only thing was we couldn't play football on a ground... I tried my best to maintain fitness. Because when we'll join the team it was important for me to come back with a decent amount of fitness... it was a good learning experience."
This struggle to regain normal levels of fitness when the surrounding reality of the world is anything but normal is of course not Rahul's alone. Other teams have faced the same challenge and perhaps that has affected the way ISL matches have been played and their results. The defender acknowledged that but was optimistic about the league overcoming this initial rut,
"You're right, the teams are not at their best fitness level. But you can see that the teams are very much focused, due to this pandemic and being in a bubble... all the teams are very much focused on the gym because there is nothing much to do... they have only one job, playing football and being in a bubble... in the coming months, maybe by the end of this month, we'll see teams back to their best fitness level."
Although the ISL's COVID safety bubble hasn't left much to be desired, it still can't make up for some of life's simple pleasures that players can't enjoy any more. For Bheke, it's his own post-matchday cool-down time that he misses the most,
"After a game, normally we have a recovery session next day, then after the session I tried to stay alone because I like being alone after the game. Then I'd go out to restaurants for lunch; it'd be different restaurants for different games... I don't think much about the game, just enjoy myself having good food, or maybe going for a massage or going for a movie. That's one thing that I'm missing here now."
Nevertheless, he claimed to be fully focused on the match against Chennaiyin FC. And although for Bengaluru FC fans the rivalry associated with the game carries a particular significance, Rahul said it didn't make a difference to him,
"I think for me, each and every team is equal. I play them always seriously... but yeah, it's a Southern Derby. But right now we're playing in Goa and there will be no fans so there's noting like that... for me every opponent will be equal. Like, I respect them, but nothing special about Chennai or East Bengal or Kerala game. It's important for me to play every game seriously."
When talking about East Bengal, his former club, joining ISL, however, Rahul betrayed the slightest hint of nostalgia,
"I think it's a really good news for Indian football that they have joined us. As you know that even the last time when we played East Bengal in the Super Cup final, it was a different moment for me. I didn't even celebrate my goal against them. But yeah, as you said, they're in ISL so surely... I'll try my best to score again."
But, if he did score, would he celebrate?
"Yeah this time I will."
And with that, the nostalgic Rahul Bheke, who once showed a tiny bit of emotion towards a former club, made way for the square-jawed professional who refused to let fond memories distract him from the task ahead.
The competition in ISL is tougher than ever and after a trophyless season, there's extra pressure on the BFC camp to re-assert their status as one of the top contenders in Indian football who always go for silverware and actually win them almost every year. And the back to back draws have added to that.
But Rahul Bheke isn't one for taking a lot of pressure.
The full version Rahul Bheke's interview can be heard on TFG Indian Football Roundup